It can be called free speech and it cannot be outlawed, but that does not make it right.

Why coercive ideological campaigns against products and brands cannot be justified
Voices Opinion Saturday, December 19, 2015 - 17:55

Powered by social media, we have seen ideological mobs launch campaigns against brands and products as a form of protest in the recent past. The demand is to either ask targets to agree to their viewpoints or extract an apology. Sometimes, it is plain vendetta. The same has been practiced offline too, to arm-twist ideological opponents into agreeing to the other point of view, or apologise for having another.

The most recent of these attacks was on popular TV journalist Barkha Dutt. Launched a couple of weeks ago, Dutt’s latest book This Unquiet Land was subject to a concerted campaign by “patriotic people” to downgrade it on Amazon, where the book was being sold. Soon enough, the book-listing received hundreds of one-star reviews and vile comments. The idea, apparently, was to “rattle” her, for she has always been the target of online right-wing mobs. Dutt clearly was not happy with it, and took to Twitter to vent her ire at Amazon for allowing it to happen.

This comes just weeks after a similar campaign against Aamir Khan. After his comments at the Ramnath Goenka awards over “intolerance” in India (which by the way were totally misconstrued), the online brigade launched a massive campaign against Snapdeal, the e-retailer he endorses. You can read about it here. “This is a non-violent protest, we just want him to apologise for his comments” was one of the excuses offered.

This is just an extension of the strategy which is followed offline by many others. The most recent of such blackmail campaigns is MNS’s call to “Boycott Dilwale” on the grounds that while SRK has money to donate to Chennai floods, he has not done anything for the drought-hit farmers of Maharashtra. “We are not seeking a ban. We are only appealing people to boycott the film. SRK is taking Maharashtra for granted,” the MNS said in a statement.

It would be unfair to blame just our friends from the Right. Not having the open-mindedness to accept writer Vikram Sampath’s views on Tipu Sultan and SL Bhyrappa, several Urdu writers in Karnataka refused to participate in the Bangalore LitFest which he was directing. Finally, Sampath was put in a corner and he quit from his position at the fest.

There has been some ambivalence towards the above events, with even “liberal-minded” people referring to such protests as peaceful or non-violent and a form of free speech, and thereby somehow acceptable in a democracy. Some have even pointed to how such campaigns have backfired and have instead helped generating publicity or higher ratings for the product or brand being attacked.

It is indeed free speech, and it may even backfire, but we must leave no doubt in stating that such campaigns are undesirable in a democracy, must be condemned and all of us who believe in individual freedoms must standby those who are being attacked by such mobs, even if we disagree with them.

If hundreds of us get together and tell a popular brand that we’ll buy its products only if they change the brand ambassador as he has different political views, write nasty book reviews online without even reading a book because you don’t like the author, threaten not to attend a LitFest unless the director is fired or is forced to change is opinion – then that is wrong. We have the freedom to do it, there can be no law against it, and I will fight your right to do all of the above, but those of us who respect each other’s freedoms should rally together to voice our protest and stand by those being targeted.

I have the right to livelihood, it is a fundamental right. Some of us make money by writing, speaking, or creating works of art. If a bunch of citizens come together and threaten our work, our way of life in fact, and say that we will be allowed to go ahead with our work peacefully only if we change our opinion, then it is pure blackmail and there is nothing virtuous about it. It is free speech and it cannot be outlawed, but that does not make it right.

To state that such campaigns have either backfired or have had no impact, using numbers like this article does, would be too simplistic. Agreed that such gloating would get to the trolls and frustrate them, but what about the damage to the brand-name in the case of Snapdeal? Do PlayStore ratings help in changing the mind of a person who has now decided that it is an anti-national brand? The impact of such campaigns on brands is very real.

Even in the case of Dutt’s book, her rating might have gone up, but the bullying was nothing pleasant. The amount of energy and time wasted in dealing with trolls online can be quite draining and take a severe toll on the person at the receiving end of it, and the entire ordeal is anything but “harmless”.

In the case of Vikram Sampath and Dilwale, the loss is financial. Thanks to the “intolerance” of the Urdu writers who were ironically fighting against it, Sampath had to quit his position and cannot possibly return to it next year.

So let’s not pretend that such online mobs are harmless or that this is free speech so it is OK. Such campaigns are blatant threats, and when law is incapable of stepping in, a civil society must by showing solidarity with the targets.

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